What a magical weekend it was indeed at the Dark Star Jubilee. Each year is just as good as the last if not better. I had the honor of attending this festival for the fourth year in a row out at Legend Valley, Ohio over Memorial Day weekend. There are so many positive things to be said about this festival. It is a world of its own filled with beautiful music, positive people, smiles in every direction, and of course Grateful Dead Tunes.
I arrived early on Friday to the Jubilee for day one of what was a spectacular weekend. As is my tradition of the last four years, I scurried through the lines of cars, hammock in hand to grab a spot right on the ridgeline of pine trees, where you can see the stage where the music never stops. As I strung up my hammock in the old pine trees, I could feel the outside world melting away and I had that familiar feeling of being home again. I saw faces from years past, hugs upon hugs from everyone around. Neighbors were greeting each other and everyone was setting up for another amazing weekend with Dark Star Orchestra.
One of the unique things about this festival is that it has a different pace and rhythm then the rest. Music doesn’t start until 6 pm on the first day, giving everyone time to settle in and get comfortable and also making the line to get into the festival only just a few minutes long. The staff each year is friendly, personable, and they make it clear they are there to help, not to hinder, each one with a big smile on their face. The atmosphere is laid back, you won’t be running from stage to stage and place to place. You can see the stages from virtually anywhere you camp, so it’s easy to relax and just take in the music and the people around you. It’s an environment that encourages constructive conversation and embracing everyone’s unique perspective that you come in contact with. It is truly a place where lifelong friendships can me made.
Night one of music started off with a surprise twist. Kung-Fu was scheduled to open the festival, but unfortunately they got stranded on the side of the road. So, the crew improvised and we got a completely off the cusp set of music made up of various members of bands that would play throughout the festival, playing a set list that was made up on the spot. There were members from the Steep Canyon Rangers and Dark Star Orchestra (DSO). It was a special treat to see lead guitarist Rob Eaton play an improvised set with his son on stage!
As the sun began to set, the band began to take the stage. The main stage is new and in its second year, and I have to say DSO has really hit their stride with lighting this large permanent feature at Legend Valley. The excitement in the crowd was almost tangible as the band started to strum it’s tuning notes. The first set started off slow and easy with “Cold Rain & Snow,” “Tennessee Jed,” and of course one of my personal favorites “Cassidy.” They kept their first performance short and sweet, with no journeys to drums and outer space, and they set the tone for a great weekend ahead throwing in “The Music Never Stopped” in their second set to remind us about the weekend we were about to have. This first show was a Grateful Dead recreation of a 1976 show in New Jersey, which the band laughed about as being not on the their top 10 favorite destination lists. As they exited the stage Jeff Austin took the second stage in a seamless transition. Once a member of Yonder Mountain String Band, he now plays with his band, the Jeff Austin Band, and we were treated to some late night blue grass tunes as is tradition at the Jubilee.
Night one ended just as beautifully as I could imagine, with the crescent moon rising in the cancer constellation and every star visible in the night sky. I fell asleep in my hammock under a pine tree lit up bright yellow, and I’m sure the smile never faded from my face as I drifted to sleep.
Day two broke just as beautiful as the last. I wandered down to grab a smoothie and some breakfast from some of the amazing vendors that were featured this year. Each year the food and drink selections are amazing. There’s vegetarian options, vegan options, and of course meat options. By far one of the things I look most forward to each year is the best pizza in the Midwest served up by Disco Pizza.
I wandered up the hill smoothie and burrito in hand to check out some of the vendors on Shakedown Street as the crews began to reassemble the stages. There were beautiful tie dyes, paintings, jewelry and just about everything else you would expect on Shakedown at the Jubilee. One of the booths that stood out to me this year was the register to vote booth. It’s nice to see that among all the reputations that festivals have, there is a political voice. With thousands of people gathering in one place, having a constructive booth like this was great to see.
The musical lineup for the day was stacked with bluegrass and easy going music, to wake you up, but also encourage a relaxing atmosphere. It was amazing to be able to lay in my hammock, enjoy the sunshine and watch family play and dance to music. The day started off with Rob Eaton's son’s band, The Drunken Hearts. They played a little bit of bluegrass and a little bit of Grateful Dead music, the perfect start to a perfect day. Other great acts from that afternoon were Moonalice, The Weight (The Band cover band), and one of my favorite bluegrass bands Railroad Earth.
After the knee stomping set provided by the guys of Railroad Earth we were all ready to see what Dark Star Orchestra had in store for us tonight. We were treated to yet another Grateful Dead recreation from 1969 in Boston. This set featured some deep tracks and showed the softer side of the band. Songs like “Dupree's Diamond Blues” and “Turn On Your Love Light” really remind you of what the Grateful Dead were all about, music that brings a smile to your face and reminds you of the community spirit that we are still nurturing today.
As the sun went down and the moon came up, I moved to the back of the crowd to take in the amazing light show. Dark Star Orchestra is the only band I have seen that uses giant tie dyes as part of the visual light show. It is a unique experience and I always think that if Jerry were alive today, he would be proud of what Dark Star has done to extend their legacy.
Late night of the second night was definitely something special. We celebrated that night with Keller and the Keels. One of my favorite features of Dark Star Jubilee is the late night bluegrass every night. They jammed late into the night with the typical Keller Williams spunk. It was a set I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
By day three I was wondering what could make this weekend any better. There were giant bubbles, and the Amazing giants for crowd entertainment, wonderful friends all around me, Grateful Dead tunes, and bluegrass, but then something happened. The Kyle Hollingsworth Band took the stage, and graced us with some String Cheese Incident tunes! String Cheese Incident goes so well with Grateful Dead. These songs just put a smile on your face, they remind you of good times with another band who has been touring for many years. I was so pleased; I don’t think I could have smiled any bigger. Other highlights of day three were the Robert Randolph Family Band, Steep Canyon Rangers, and a band I have never seen before, Los Lobos.
By night three DSO was ready to take us on the journey they create with their original set lists. We got a “Sugar Magnolia,” “Eyes of the World,” and a thrilling “Drums>Space.” As they encored with “Tangled Up in Blue” and “And We Bid You Goodnight,” I stood there with my arms around the lovely friends I came with and we all teared up just a little knowing that this was the end of a beautiful weekend. We ended with a group hug and all of the strangers around us joined in. What a beautiful community, what a wonderful weekend, and what beautiful humans.
I’ll be at Jubilee this year, and for each year that Dark Star Orchestra continues to hold it. This festival is truly different from any other. I’ll leave you with the parting words from Dark Star Orchestra:
“Welcome back to those who have joined us in previous years and greetings to those of you joining us for the first time. We are truly blessed with a ridiculously talented and compelling lineup of like-minded musicians who set the stage for what promises to be a magical weekend of music and community. We are procuring a peaceful and family friendly environment where we can all share in music, love and laughter. As a part of this intimate setting, we hope that you each experience your own individual freedom while enjoying the communal spirit of the whole. Please respect each other, the few rules, and may the music never stop."